Home Debunking The Myths The Myth of Will Power

The Myth of Will Power

by Erika Nicole Kendall

How easy would it be for YOU to say no?

I’m always intrigued by people who presume that my weight loss is attributed solely to will power… or that the [at least] two thirds of Americans simply… lack will power, and that’s why they’re overweight. There’s this all-or-nothingness that hangs over the concept.

No, really – you just need to tell yourself “No,” and then you’ll be better able to handle your diet.

Think about that: the only reason why two thirds of Americans are overweight is the fact that they don’t have this uncanny ability to say “No” that the other third of Americans appear to have. How silly does that sound? If anything, with looking at those numbers, you’d think actually having will power is the anomaly… right? Or does it just make more sense to keep minimizing how difficult it is to lose weight and mock people for not being able to do it?

I think of my own personal experiences with food, and I’ve got to tell you…the first, at least, 100lbs that I lost had nothing to do with having will power. It wasn’t about some ability to “just say no.” It wasn’t even about portion control at first. It certainly wasn’t about some silly diet. It was 100% about what I was purchasing at the grocery. It was about what I allowed myself to have around me. Period.

And some might say, “Well, that’s about self-discipline, isn’t it?” I’d have to say yes, but then again it’s easy to realize what you need to purchase, and go to the grocery to act on that list and make the appropriate purchases. You go in with a plan and you come out a winner. It is another thing entirely when hunger attacks, and you have to fight the urge to get up and leave the house for fast food.

And again, you might say, “well surely that part is about self-discipline, yes?” Again, I’d have to say yes.  If you’re experiencing hunger pangs, you absolutely do have to fight against yourself to make the better, safer, healthier decision. You do have to fight and tell yourself “no, don’t get in that car!” You do have to tell yourself, once you’re already in the car, “Nooooooooo, don’t hit that drive thru!” and let’s face it: If you’re already in the drive-thru, you might’ve already lost the war.

But if so much about weight loss is will power… where is the myth?

The myth is that will power is the key. It’s not. If you’re not used to telling yourself no… where are you going to develop that herculean strength? If you’re not used to turning down treats and ignoring cravings, where and how do you start? How can we ensure success? You learn self-discipline… you don’t just all-of-a-sudden find this giant mass of it within you. It’s a growth process. That stupid “all or nothing” mentality doesn’t apply.

If I’m in a household full of processed foods – foods studied, tested and engineered for “maximum flavor intensity” and “you-can’t-eat-just-one-ability” and “oh-my-gosh-this-is-so-good-I-can’t-stop-eating-ity” – it’s supposed to make sense that I can easily say no? That’s why I believe the first step starts at the grocery store. That’s where I first developed my ability to say “No.” That’s where I first realized that I needed to be able to use the two feet I was born with, and walk away from certain aisles… and each time I was successful, I felt a little freer. Just a little… but a little was enough.

Before long, I was learning about food and improving my ability to say no, simply because I was realizing what was in everything. It certainly wasn’t food, and I wanted to develop a better relationship with food – not chemicals – so I spent a fair amount of time casting the chemicals out. I’m still developing my relationship with food – I don’t know that this is a process with a finite ending to it – but I can tell you one thing: I’m intuitive enough that I can dine outside of my home and, within two bites, turn down a dish that I think isn’t homemade or is simply poorly made. I’m not going to be hoodwinked into redeveloping bad habits because someone used chemicals in their food. I’ll pass.

If a company spends $30 million on studies for creating the “perfect spaghetti sauce,” and spends years on taste testing for the perfect balance… then guess what – they’re investing all of that money and doing all of that taste testing to find out which sauce will please the majority of the public. (Note: This will almost always be a sauce full of sugar and salt. The sugar makes it pleasing on the tongue and in the brain. The salt makes you want to use more of it.) It makes sense, then, that the majority of the public would be able to say no to the sauce? I’m confused.

The myth of will power is simply that we give it far too much credit. Self-discipline, in my mind, can only be achieved when the playing field is leveled – that means, no chemical interference – and if you never take those steps to make that happen, you are going to struggle. Does that mean that it’s smooth sailing after that? Of course not. There are lots of bumps in the road but for me, the real progress in developing my self-discipline began there.

What about you? What struggles do you face with developing self-discipline? How did you develop yours? Let’s hear it!

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Solace October 18, 2010 - 10:14 AM

To some (myself included) saying no is a doozy. This isn’t an excuse, it’s a reason. It’s a war I fight daily.

What it seems to come down to is seeing the word “no” less as a tool for depriving yourself and more as a weapon to avoid sabotaging your journey towards health.

ChellBellz October 18, 2010 - 10:16 AM

Since i decided to change my way of living I’ve had to work on my disipline big time. Things like seeing someone else who is bigger and struggling or in pain triggers something in my mind for me to put downnnn and step away from the bag of oreos and milk. I know it sounds bad but I always think to myself, maybe they couldnt eat just one, or jeeze i wonder if their weight has anything to do with it. I think about all those things, and then i reconsider.

I was told i was diabetic all of a sudden out of the blue. I started eating better, burbing my carbs all because I was afraid of being sick, and it being on me for not doing something about it. As my numbers lowered and my stress level came down, a doctor told me more then likely since i had a history of good glucose levels that it might have been temporaray, but I got so use to eating better that now i have weened myself off a sugary drinks, and Sweet tea (which i would have killed for). I lose weight, and its all because i was scared into it. I know it sounds bad but that was all i needed for self disipline.

Nicole October 18, 2010 - 10:24 AM

If I could *just* say NO to starbucks, I would be complete. UGH its so hard.

rissa October 18, 2010 - 10:58 AM

my biggest problem is eating regularly. many times i go 4-10 hours without eating and then i’m starving so i a) grab the first thing i can find and b) eat heaping mounds of it. i dont plan and i’m not prepared. and my next biggest problem is the sweets. just eating fruit as my sweets will suffice for a couple of days then some super craving comes and i eat an entire half of a cake. or i get frustrated. quitting sugar gives me those really REALLY bad withdrawal headaches which lasts for hours or until i eat some sugar. i really need help.

Nannette Wade October 18, 2010 - 11:33 AM

I agree that it is a process. I lost 35 pounds, then struggled for the last 4 months going up and down within a 6-7 pound range. Part of me wanted to stay on the healthy track and part of me wanted to eat in response to stress or just because it tastes good. Yesterday I ate clean for 24 hours and will continue today. Some people tell me it is easy “just say no”. If it were easy, no one would be fat. Your blog is excellent. I read it all the time. My health is now my priority so I’m not giving up the fight to lose another 130 pounds.

Tazzee October 18, 2010 - 11:44 AM

Thank you for this article. Many attributed weight loss success to will power but I knew it started at the grocery store. I just kept certain foods out of my house. At the time I lived alone. Friends would joke that my refrigerator only had bottled water and salad. Now that I’m married with a 15 year old stepson, it is SO much harder. Every other day I come home to chips, cookies, cereal (my weakness) – all kinds of ‘goodies’.

Well recently I proclaimed that the entire household is going to start eating healthier and if the Teen wants junkfood he has to get a job and buy it himself. My husband is the main culprit and I’ve been working hard on him.

Unfortunately I’m not at the point where junk tastes bad to me or my body rejects it but I’m trying to get there.

SexyCool August 8, 2011 - 5:24 PM

Hey you!

I didn’t know you were over here on this site! Sheesh…I just stumbled across it a week or so ago. (Mean mugging you for holding out on the good info….lol)

panviki May 15, 2012 - 3:30 PM

I too have the same problem. My husband love junk food and when my sixteen year old was there it was excused. Now that he is 20 and gone my husband still keep junk food at home and those I become sometimes so weak for. Doing a little better but still trying to get more self discipline.

Streetz October 18, 2010 - 12:20 PM

It all starts mentally. you have to make that decision mentally that you will eat better. Sometimes it makes outside motivation or stimulus. I remember a conversation i had with Erika, where she usually roasts me, lol, but challenged me on my claim that I eat majority well. so I started keeping a food journal to prove it, and that became a great way to regulate my eating.

Before that, it was the prospect of having that Beachbody, and thinking if i just cut back now the endless return on investment of a great body and great health is worth it.

So yes, Will power isnt the end all be all, but once you start winning those battles, and you develop real will power, it will asisst you

Merewen October 19, 2010 - 9:51 PM

My ability to say no is tested on two different fronts. At work boredom and at home. I don’t do the grocery shopping. And it’s almost impossible to dictate what some one else (skinny person) buys. I’m working on it, but I’ve got to be sneaky about it 😛

Jay A October 23, 2010 - 8:56 AM

I enjoyed the article, and proud to say that I do EXCEPTIONALLY well at the grocery store. Even when going down “the aisle” of temptation. However, It’s when I’m other places besides home that I get in trouble (work being THE WORST…it’s that dang vending machine). I teach 2nd grade,so drinking tons of water is NOT convenient for me, neither is eating every 2-3 hours. I know how to pack my own snacks, but for some reason…those snacks do NOT have the same kind of satisfying taste as regular empty carb snacks. Why is that I wonder……?
I KNOW better, and the fact that at times I don’t do better causes me to become upset with myself leading to more negative eating…it has taken some years for me to get to this size 16/18 but some of the pounds that I have gained have come quickly (within a month)….and I want them off just as fast…..all in all I guess it’s mind over matter.

Ighosime June 14, 2011 - 4:08 AM

Hi Erika,

Great piece. I often tell people that weight loss is a process and not a quick fix, and it begins with first of all accepting what it is you look and feel like. Then you can go ahead and analyze your diet and exercise regimen, and then you can begin figuring out and making the changes. Yes will power is important, but you are right in that it’s something you develop and of course the more you see and feel positive results the more your will power increases.

Your post reminded me of the fact that in America, unfortunately, the food that is good for you is the food that is most expensive. Shouldn’t be the case, but that’s how it is and I put a lot of blame on the companies that come up with these addictive food products. These are coincidentally cheaper to buy as a result of all the chemicals in them, and the ensuing fact that they know people will keep buying them! And from what I observed, this most negatively affects the lower income strata of American society, because why spend 5 bucks on some gourmet celery when that same amount can get you a double cheeseburger, large fries and a large soda. It’s a really sad cycle.

Anyway, bravo on this site. I’m a guy who is also on a weight loss mission and my mantra is slowly but surely because that’s how I know that the change will be lasting.

Edith July 3, 2011 - 11:56 AM

I remind myself that everyone in my family has heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. I also remind myself I’m 40 with small children and I owe it to them to be healthy.

Keelah July 8, 2011 - 12:15 PM

It helps me to make good decisions more often that I make not so good ones. That is all. Checks and balances. I have a goal. Each decision that I make thereafter is either contributing to or negating my goals. Most times, I make the choice that is contributing, some times, I make the decision to indulge or skip the tough workout in favor of a more pleasurable less ‘active’ one with FULL knowledge and understanding that I will have a deficit to tend to. If its worth it (like my aunties peach cobbler was) then I go for it. If its just a Hershey bar, which used to be my fave, but is SO not worth the calories, then I pass.

seejanesweat August 8, 2011 - 4:15 PM

I’ve often said that will power is overrated. Because it’s easier to change your environment than to change your mind, you have set up an environment that will help you succeed. For example, I love sweets. So in order to stay on track I don’t have a lot of sweets in my home. I have three kids and I do buy some sweets for them but I buy them the ones I don’t care for. That way I won’t be tempted to eat a lot of sugary treats. If I stocked my cupboards with all the junk food that I love then I’m setting myself up for failure. The only time I really have to worry about will power is when I am in the grocery store, which is why I try to make sure I’ve eaten before I go. Because if I’m hungry when I grocery shop, I’ll throw every sweet and gooey thing I can find into my shopping cart. By going to the grocery store on a full stomach I think with my head and not my belly.

Tiera September 3, 2011 - 7:36 PM

My discipline journey started with portion control. I know it sounds so cliched, but it’s true. In the beginning, I could eat a whole dozen doughnuts throughout the day and not eat anything else. I have always had carb issues. I couldn’t get enough of them. My excuse for eating lots of ice cream was “It’s just frozen liquid. It will melt, then pass through me like water. So I shouldn’t gain any weight.” Then reality hit. I started noticing my weight picking up by the tens…in less than two months. I know that diabetes is a widespread issue and it scared me..not so much that I quit eating unhealthy cold turkey, but enough to make me feel bad if I over-indulged. Not to mention, I could no longer shop in my favorite stores because they did not have my size. I had the mentality of the skinny girl and active girl that I once was, but the body of a lazy, fat woman. So I began to do something about it. I didn’t quit cold turkey, but I started dwindling my portions. I would fill up on water to satisfy me enough to gain the strength to say no to eating more. When I craved carbs, I munched on carrots. It only satisfied me enough to keep me out of the doughnut shop. When I got better at it, I discovered these little cups of “Skinny Cow” ice cream that were only like 175 calories per cup. That helped a lot, but at that point, I was in the stage where I could eat just one cup and be happy. Slowly, and I do mean slowly, but surely, I learned how to control not just my carb eating habits, but my eating habits in whole. I now eat fruit and veggies more than ever. My taste buds have become accustomed to them so they taste pretty good to me. Watch out, though. Too much of ANYTHING is bad for you. So still keep even your fruits and veggies at a decent intake. Do I still enjoy the occassional brownie or doughnut? Yes! Yes I do. I just know how to quit when I need to. Btw, I have lost 15lbs since I started about two months ago. I found water to play a very important role in weight loss. Now I am looking into organic foods and I am making a slow transition into vegetarianism. This is my choice, not the only way to lose weight. The people at work tease me because I examine everything in my food lol. I also knew that my BMI was way too high which posed many concerns to me. I need to be healthier.

Jami November 7, 2011 - 9:30 PM

It seems to me this article is talking about food. The willpower to say no to prepared foods readily available and convenient versus the self-discipline to not buy certain foods. But what about an article on the willpower to say yes to exercise 3-5 days of the week versus the self-discipline to exercise 3-5 days of the week?

Mwesh December 22, 2011 - 3:54 AM


This resonated with me so much because its a STRUGGLE to stay clean at times. Especially during that time of the month, will power doesn’t even apply. BUT. I am aware of the urges I have and I’m learning to accept that the urges will always exist. What doesn’t have to exist is the reaction to the urges i.e being a ravenous crazy person. I have to admit though, I’m not one who journals that much…is it necessary to keep an account of this in order to succeed?

Leena June 7, 2012 - 11:10 PM

I started off eliminating soft drinks. It wasn’t hard because I barely drank anything throughout the day. Then I went with portion control and eating less but more often. Difficult but once I saw that I was more energized and got less migraines my motivation to eat better kicked in. I didn’t jump right into it. I did a bit a research, cuz that’s how I am (the librarian in me) and introduced new vegetables. Now I make sure to carry a 10-cup water bottle with me at work, so I know that I’m keeping dehydrated. That’s basic right there and it goes a long way for your health.I’ve been doing well, but I fall off some times. And when I fall off it, I get sick or bloated and blah. So I go back to good because I hate feeling that way.

Brittney January 20, 2013 - 5:17 AM

I totally agree. My “will power” is rooted in my ability to purchase my own groceries. When I was living with my mom, it was so hard to watch my diet because she would bring fatty foods into the house. Once I was back on my own, choosing healthy food was easy. I just made sure I never went to the grocery store hungry and I only bought things I knew I could eat. I’m a juice lover also, so just not having any in the house helped me shed so many daily calories and my water intake skyrocketed.

My fiends laugh when we go out and I literally ask the waiter to take an item off the table completely ie: sauce and sugars. Removing things from my sight helps my brain forget about having them. Out of sight, out of mind.

ANJI October 14, 2013 - 3:07 PM

Funny, I can go all day and follow my diet to a “T”, but after 9pm all bets are off and I’m running around the kitchen like a mad woman. Now, at 9p I drink a couple of cups of water and try not to go in to the kitchen area if at all possible. But mostly I take myself to bed, read a book or listen to music.

Jessica June 19, 2014 - 4:17 PM

For me, my will power works best when I recognize when I am actually dealing with a hard time or struggle. I can imagine myself saying no to junk at parties or work or wherever, but when your actually in the situation, its different. When I am at a party and I see the junk food, I have to say to myself, “Jess, this is the hard time you said you would go through. How do you feel? What can you do to make it through?” Then I answer those questions in my head and I usually come out a winner. The “How do you feel?”-I feel like I want to eat a few (or many) of the junk foods…..but then I know I will be one step further from my goal….The “What can you do?” part-when I think about how I will be ingesting chemicals mainly….and not even real food, I am totally turned off by the food. So basically, acknowledging that I am experiencing a struggle or dilemma helps me walk away.

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